Racing Royalty - Joe Bongiorno

Colts Neck’s Joe Bongiorno is not your typical 18-year-old high school senior. At an age when most of his peers are pondering which weekend party to attend, or are ecstatic at the mere prospect of sitting behind the steering wheel of a car, Joe spends his weekends on harness racing tracks, anchored in a sulky and directing horses across the finish line. It’s easy to say that horse racing is in his blood, as Joe’s lineage boasts a couple of members of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, providing him with a pedigree that has bred success in the horse racing industry for more than six decades. His  late great-uncles Stanley and Vernon are two of the most recognizable names in harness racing circles. Stanley achieved  3,781 career victories, and Vernon raised many successful horses on his farm in New Egypt. Joe’s grandfather Harold  “Sonny” Dancer also drove some of the sport’s most renowned horses, such as Ricci Reenie Time, and won well over  800 races in his right.

The Bongiorno’s love of horses was evident from the moment I sat down for our interview with Joe and his mother,  Barbara. Just to the left of where I placed my recorder on the coffee table was a short row of books, held up by bookends with decorative horses on them.

At first glance, the tall, slender Joe appeared to be just like any other teenager. He was casually dressed in a tee-shirt and sweat pants, which is comfortable attire for most high school students. But as he started discussing his extraordinary achievements in a very humble manner, it became clear that he is mature and focused well beyond his years. Not many  amateur drivers can claim to have won more than half of their starts in any circuit, but Joe never bragged about his  accomplishments. He kept a level tone and often prefaced his victories with phrases such as, “I guess I did well at...” All the while, he continued thanking people who have helped him along so far, and kept everything in perspective by  talking about the necessary steps he needs to take to achieve his next goals.

Joe’s forward-thinking focus and equable demeanor should serve him well as he prepares to embark on his equestrian career. He turned 18 one week after our interview, and began competing in pari-mutuel races at Freehold Raceway right  here in Monmouth County. 

As he entered the stretch run of his amateur career and prepared to cross the line to become a professional driver, Joe  Bongiorno shared his incredible journey and vision with Living In Colts Neck.

LICN: So your 18th birthday is coming up. Are you getting excited as it gets closer?
JB: Yes, on September 23rd I turn 18. I’m very excited because that’s the first day I can drive in a pari-mutuel race and  professional race at Freehold Raceway track. A judge there already told me that I’ll be able to drive at Freehold the day I get my license. They said they’ll have it ready for me, and I can just take it and drive.

LICN: You obtained your qualifying (Q) license when you were 16. Usually teenagers are drawn to more mainstream  sports such as baseball, basketball, and football. What inspired you at 16 to climb into a sulky?
Joe, 7 with his grandpop, Harold (Sonny) Dancer, 2000.JB: Well my family has always been in the business. My dad (Robert) used to be a trainer a long time ago, and now he  owns about 25 horses. And my mom’s family has always been in the business. Her dad is Harold Dancer, and the  Dancer name is one of the biggest names in harness racing. My mom’s uncle was Stanley Dancer.

LICN: The Dancer name is definitely one of the biggest names in the sport, with two members in the Hall of Fame.  Stanley drove 23 separate Triple Crown winners, and Vernon won over 1,700 races. Because of that, do you feel any  extra pressure when you are out on the track, knowing the stature that your family name carries?
JB: No pressure. I just have to try to fulfill what my family has always done.

LICN: Has it always been a dream of yours since you were a child to be a driver, or did that desire grow on you as you  got older?
JB: Well I was around the horse business growing up, but I never actually wanted to be anything in the business. I just  liked to be around the horses when I was younger. But when I was about 14 years old, my dad asked me if I wanted to  go jog a horse for George “Buzzy” Sholty, a local trainer who I’ve been working with ever since. I jogged a horse that  my dad and Buzzy each had a piece of, and ever since then, I knew I wanted to be a driver. I just really knew that it felt  right when I was on the horse; I felt really comfortable. A lot of people are nervous at first, but I just felt like it was  something that I was meant to do. Growing up around the horses all the time definitely helped me feel more  comfortable.

LICN: You’ve had some record-setting accomplishments already. Can you talk about some of those?
JB: I’ve broken a record at Chester for a 1 ¼ mile race, and I set a lifetime mark on Winterleebrook at Pocono Downs. I  also won the final on the American Harness Drivers Club series in the Meadowlands last December when I rode Oh What a Guy.

LICN: What goes through your mind as you cross the finish line and know you’ve won a race?
JB: It’s just a great feeling. You go back to the winner’s circle and celebrate the victory with your family. And then  when you go back to the paddock you just have to be calm and collected, and look forward to the next race. You can’t  just be all happy and get a big head about it, you just have to stay focused and get ready for the next race.

LICN: What’s the accomplishment that you are most proud of so far?
JB: One of my best races was driving Winterleebrook at Pocono, because I was told that the horse wasn’t any good at  the time, and that I wouldn’t have much a shot to win with him. For that race, the trainers put a new set of shoes on him, and the horse won by 10 lengths and set a new lifetime mark, and I was very surprised and happy that he did that.  That was very cool.

LICN: What’s been your favorite horse that you have drove so far?
JB: Definitely Mr. Lucky Back. It was a horse that I had for a couple of years, and he was a horse that I really loved to  drive. He got claimed about four months ago, and that was sad, but you have to let them go. You can’t worry about  losing a horse, you just have to find a new favorite one and go from there.

LICN: In this kind of business, there’s going to be such a high turnover rate in the amount of horses that you work  with. It’s only natural to think that if you ride a horse and do well with it for a long time, you’re going to grow attached to it, and to the rapport you have with it. How do you cope with the different emotions that come with that?
JB: Yes. Horses get claimed, horses get injured, and that’s just all part of it. You can’t get attached to them. It’s like my  dad told me: “you can’t fall in love with them to the point to where you lose them and then become all broken down about it. You just have to work with them, and you can like one better than another one, but don’t get attached.” I  definitely like the ones that I’ve done better with, but for the most part I’ve done pretty well with all the horses I’ve been on. I won about four or five races with Mr. Lucky Back last year and when I lost him I was upset, but I know that I’ll find another horse that I really like.

LICN: You must have to do an immense amount of traveling between training and competing in all the various tracks  both in and out of state. How much travelling do you do in a typical week?
JB: There’s definitely a lot of travel involved. Especially when you are just starting out, you want to be everywhere all  at once, but you obviously can’t do that. Right now it’s really stressful to ship the horses that I’m racing on five or six hour rides. That’s not worth doing every week. So I do more qualifying than amateur races. Once I get my P license I pick a day track and a night track to manage the time better. Once I get my license will probably be Freehold on  Thursdays and Fridays. Then I’ll travel to Saratoga, New York, for Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday day. And  then if I pick up anything during the week at Monticello, I’ll go there.

LICN: You won the National Amateur Driver of the year over the winter. Was that a goal that you set out to accomplish,  and how did it feel once you found out that you had won the award?
Joe and Too Good Too Pass striding confidently right into the winner’s circle at the Delaware County Fair, September 2011.JB: Yes, I went to Florida last February, and I got a nice award for that. I got to celebrate what I guess I earned from competing in the amateur races. I was just hoping that I would do well, and I didn’t know that I was going to do as well as I did when I started racing. But when I did begin racing, I just kind of took off and got some drives from other people, and people kind of liked the way that I drove their horses, so they gave me good horses in amateur races to drive. So I  guess winning those amateur races got me that medal. There was a committee of about 50 or 60 harness riders from around the county. They all made their decision as to who was going to win it, and my name came out on top.

LICN: What was your reaction when you found out you won? And how did you find out you won?
JB: I found out when John Manzi (a member of the National Harness Racing Hall of Fame) gave me a phone call. He  told me he had great news for me, and I said “What’s that?” And he told me that I had won that award. And I was just  real happy, and I told him what a great honor it was to win such an award like that. And not many people at my age  have won that award, so it’s very meaningful to me.

Joe carries on the family legacy from his grandpop, Harold (Sonny Dancer) and his dad, Harold Dancer Sr., 1976.LICN: It’s interesting that you mention your age there. How common is it for teenagers to be as involved in this sport  as you are?
JB: There aren’t many people as young as I am, not any at the moment really, that do this. But there are young drivers  that are about 20 or 21 years old, and a few in this area, and maybe a few more across the country. But it’s not common for someone my age to be this involved, no.

LICN: So how does someone your age manage all of this? If must be challenging to balance everything. Between the  traveling, the racing, the training, still finishing your high school studies, and being 17 years old, maintaining a social life,  how do you do it?
JB: Well school is definitely in the way of harness racing. I mean, I understand I have to keep my grades up for school  but harness racing is my focus. When I’m home, that’s all I really want to do. But I get everything done and I just have  to manage some time in there for school work too, since I know I have to finish it. I manage my time within range of  what I can do.

LICN: Do your classmates and friends at school truly understand how involved you are in the sport, and how much  time and effort you put into harness racing?
JB: No one’s really into the business, but they know what I do. Some of my friends think it’s cool, and other people  think it’s just another hobby, which is fine. But the ones who are interested in it always ask how I’m doing, or how I  did in the races.

LICN: Are you involved in any extra-curricular activities in school?
JB: I played baseball when I was a freshman, but after my freshman year I just focused mainly on the horse racing.

LICN: Have you ever been involved in a race where there have been crashes?
JB: Knock on wood, (raps on the coffee table) no I haven’t. There’ve been people who have crashed into me in a couple  races, but never to a point where I got thrown out of the sulky, no. When you are sitting behind a horse, you can’t be worried or scared or else you’re never going to be successful. I don’t really think about that ever because I love racing. And I’m not going to stop even though I know my mom doesn’t want me to do it.

LICN: (I turn to Barbara) So what are thinking when you watch Joe during a race? Is there a little bit of fear watching  him?
BARBARA: Yes, there’s lot of fear. When it’s your own child out there, it’s just very, very stressful to Joe was awarded the National Amateur Driver of the Year award at the United States Harness Writers Association awards banquet in Fort Lauderdale, February him. I  grew up where my dad always trained and drove. And as a kid, you don’t really realize the enormity of it, and that it is  really is a very dangerous sport. You just know that your dad goes and does it, and he pays the bills. I was always very  involved in following my dad around, and I loved it, and I loved the business. But when Joe gets behind the starting  gate, tears roll down my face and my heart starts pounding. Obviously I want him to do well, but most of all I just want  him to finish the race safely and move onto another race.

LICN: Living in Monmouth County, you are surrounded by plenty of horse farms in the Colts Neck area, have the  privilege of living close to the Freehold track, and are only about an hour away from the Meadowlands. Do you think  that makes it easier for you to be interested in the sport, and allows you to take advantage of some opportunities that  you might not have if you lived somewhere else?
JB: I’m definitely in a good spot where I live because I’m in between a couple of good tracks that I want to drive at.  Freehold is less than 20 minutes away, and the Meadowlands, when I get my license, is only about 45 minutes away  from the house, so I’m in a good spot in New Jersey right now. Hopefully NJ racing picks up though, because if it  doesn’t, then I’ll have to move somewhere else and race in a different state.

LICN: Were you born in New Jersey?
JB: Yes. I’ve lived in Colts Neck for about 12 years now, I lived in Freehold before. I’ve been in Monmouth County my whole life.

LICN: Do you have any plans to one day own your own farm, and become a trainer?
JB: In an ideal situation, I would like to own my own stable and train some horses for myself. That’s the right way to  go about starting out in the business, I would think. I’ll probably have about a 6-10 horse stable, and I’ll train them  myself with another person, and try to go about it that way.

LICN: Do you have any siblings?The love and support from Joe’s family is a key ingredient to Joes’ success. Joe, sister Jenn, Barbara, and Bobby.
JB: I have an older sister, Jennifer. She’s 21. She likes to be around the horses, but she’s not involved in the business or  anything like that. She just likes to be around them, and to come into the winner’s circle with me. She’s a big supporter.

LICN: So how big of a support network do you have that follows you around and watches the various races you are in?
JB: My dad and mom are my biggest supporters since they go to all my races for the most part. Some friends that  I’ve met and brought along the way have seen me too. Plus I have different friends in the business that are drivers and  I’m friendly with them, and I learn off them when I see them at the tracks because they’re more experienced than I am. I try  to get advice from everybody, and just take that, remember it, and learn from it. But I definitely have people who come  to the tracks and support me, my grandparents always come also.

LICN: You’ve had a lot of experiences that aren’t common for someone your age. In addition to all of your phenomenal  accomplishments with the horse racing, you’ve also been a bat boy for the New York Yankees. How did that happen, and what was it like to be in the dugout during a game?
JB: Yes, last year I was a bat boy for about eight games. That came about because we owned horses with a guy named  Joe Lee, who is the head equipment manager for the Yankees. And he told me he had a few dates for when their bat boy was going to be absent, and he told me I could come out and do it if I wanted to. I told him, “Absolutely!” So I did it,  and the people in the clubhouse liked me, so I came back for a couple of more games when the other guy was absent.  And it was a cool experience. I’m a big Yankees fan. It was very cool. I got to eat lunch with the team at a table. I got a couple autographs from Derek Jeter and a couple of other guys on the team. Barbara interjects: And not everyone gets  to watch a race with Yogi Berra!

Favorite Restaurants: Brioso & Sawa
Favorite Musicians: Jason Aldean and Jamie Johnson
Favorite Movies: Remember the Titans & Secretariat
Pet Peeve: People who drive slowly in the left lane.
Three people to dine with: Great Uncle Stanley Dancer, Derek Jeter and Donald Trump

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22 Sep 2016

By Paul Williams